Think back to your childhood. Picture a room in your grandmother’s house, or maybe at another relative’s. Is there a quilt hanging proudly on the wall, lying carefully on a bed or draped over the back of a couch or chair? Chances are, if you’re from Appalachia, the answer is yes.

Appalachia has a rich quilt-making history. Born of necessity to keep warm in the winter months and to use up extra fabric scraps, quilting quickly became central to supplementing the income of workers’ families when industry dwindled, the land stripped and mined of its natural resources, with only the residents left to pick up the pieces. An undercurrent of resiliency remained; therefore quilters created opportunities by finding markets to sell their quilts. After the economy stabilized, quiltmaking continued to be a popular art form, earning quilters state fair ribbons, respect and admiration from those outside the region.

A staple of Appalachian culture for generations, quilting has also always allowed those traditionally inside the home, particularly women, to express themselves and their creativity when there were not many other opportunities to do so. While some would consider the practice antiquated, there is a new generation of artists keeping this uniquely Appalachian craft alive. Through their own twists on the craft, artists like Meghan Groves, Griffin Nordstrom and Amy Pabst are stitching a contemporary context back into quilting and making it relevant for today.

Meghan Groves & Improv Quilting

Photos provided by Megan

Many Appalachian creatives are influenced by the mountains that surround them, and quilter Meghan Groves is no exception. Her first quilt is a spitting image of the mountains she’s called home her entire life.

“The different tones and the intensity of the rise and fall of those mountains, that’s what you see in my work,” Meghan said. “I think how things bend and form into one another are just these mountains made over.”

Meant to be a wall hanging, the quilt was accepted into her local art museum for an upcoming show. It’s also a visual reminder for Meghan about her West Virginia grandmothers who also quilted.

“The ones I make don’t necessarily look like theirs, but there’s similar intent there … to make your space feel more like yours,” Meghan said.

Appalachian women have long expressed themselves through quilting — they’ve created their own patterns and designs, told their stories with their hands, infused quilts with their essence and individuality and customized their space all with materials already on hand. In that spirit of personal expression, Meghan has discovered the concept of improv quilting where she quilts by feel, which she said is “a wonderfully chaotic process.”

Improv quilting is a faster pace within a slower structured art form. Meghan quilts in a stream-of-consciousness way, starting with the kernel of an idea that continues to reveal itself as she works. These finished looks appear reminiscent of “crazy quilts,” a trend featuring an abstract design with beginnings in the Victorian Age of the late 1800s, stemming from the colonial habit of saving money by piecing together all available scraps of cloth and fabric.

“You have no option but to be present while you’re making it like this,” she said. “I’m cutting two pieces of fabric together, sewing them together and then responding to that.”

Meghan has also created a quilt pattern for sale in the shape of a fried egg, and those who use the pattern have an opportunity to try improv quilting.

“It’s whole purpose is to make me smile and for other people,” she said. “Sometimes quilters are a little tentative on the improv thing because it seems a little scary and it might go cattywampus, but it generally works out.”

Many of Meghan’s quilts are found strewn across people’s beds, fulfilling their practical function as much as they provide beauty. She’s adamant that quilts are something that should be used, viewed and admired — not tucked away in a linen closet.

“So often quilts get folded up and not used or don’t ever quite get up on the wall. I want these things to be out and in use,” she said. “It’s this beautiful textile that lives in someone’s home.”

A unique yet engaging art form, quilting produces something you can touch and feel.

“Everyone feels comfortable touching it; it doesn’t have this kind of barrier to it,” Meghan said. “It’s an art everyone is used to having in their homes, even if they haven’t acknowledged it as an art form. It’s something that draws you to touch it because of the texture of fabrics, and you want to know: Does it crinkle in your hands? How does that particular fabric feel on your fingertips? What does the backing feel like? Every part of it engages someone to get close to it.”

Whether contemporary quilters learned from their grandmothers, whose own grandmothers and relatives passed down their own knowledge, or have taught themselves, Meghan said it allows them to command and have control of this part of their heritage that has been vastly underestimated and oftentimes overlooked.

“I think of it as a way to connect with my grandmothers, a way to think about all of the labor and intention that went into the pieces that they made,” she said. “In fact, I have pieces that have fabric that were my grandmother’s, my Mamaw’s. It feels like this very direct line to work that she was making.”

Griffin Nordstrom & Sustainability

Photos provided by Griffin

With a spirit of resourcefulness spurred on by a phrase that’s always in the back of his mind — “use it up, use it out, make do or do without”— and the support of a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant from West Virginia University, Griffin Nordstrom started exploring West Virginian history and culture through a contemporary art lens. In 2020, he began tapping into his family’s rich history of West Virginia quilters, and with the help of his aunts, Griffin made his first quilt — half plastic and half standard cotton fabric. He began more plastic quilting the next year, as he said sustainability is one of the core ideas in his art and quilt making practice.

“I knew it had more room to explore,” he said. “That was when I fully started working, where I was seeing myself as a quilter.”

Griffin said when quilters don’t have much material at their disposal, they have to make everything work, and they must use all available fabric on hand, like quilters of decades past. Most of his materials are recycled plastic shopping bags and donated fabric, much of which is from rural Appalachian fiber artists, who work with natural or synthetic fibers and textiles such as fabric or yarn, placing as much importance on their materials and the labor involved as the finished product.

“Whenever I quilt, I am directly inspired by and feel connected to my West Virginian ancestors, all this family community that I don’t necessarily feel when I’m not engaged in quiltmaking. I engage a lot with the folk art traditions of West Virginia and ideas and practices, so it’s a weird mix between fighting the West Virginia background and what I come from and embracing it,” he said.

With a general trend toward fast fashion in global culture, combined with folk art not being taken as seriously as it should be in the art world outside of Appalachia, Griffin said it’s more important than ever to consider and connect with our histories.

“Bringing that into this highly contemporary situation, it’s important both to honor those traditions and history of West Virginia and Appalachian making… and also making it available to a modern audience who may sometimes feel the only art they can make is the art you more commonly see as an opportunity,” he said.

Amy Pabst & Art Quilts

Photos of Amy Pabst courtesy of Ben Amend

Reminiscent of generations of Appalachian women who were traditionally taught quilting and other useful domestic skills starting at a young age, Amy Pabst’s mom and grandma also taught her to sew when she was young. She started out with a job sewing alterations at a dry cleaner’s — something she did not like at all. Avoiding any type of sewing for a long time after that, her love for quilting happened almost by accident when she randomly picked up a library book about the craft.

“I call it a fever. I fell into this full-on creative fever, and I just started making quilts and never stopped,” she said.

Amy started out making miniature quilts, sometimes a quarter inch or smaller, a trademark she’s now known for. Soon, Amy branched into producing art quilts, made specifically to hang on the wall. There’s more emphasis on design as opposed to workmanship, she said.

“In traditional quilting, you’re worried about how tiny your stitches are and all that, but with art quilting it’s a little more liberating and you’re able to focus more on design elements than on making sure your technique is just perfect,” Amy said.

As a fiber arts major at Marshall University, Amy said she can tell her education influences the way she makes quilts and is a big part of why she’s making more art quilts than traditional quilts. She recently took a weaving class, and she said working on looms helped her understand the anatomy of fabric.

After receiving an honorable mention ribbon at her first quilt show at the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair about a decade ago, Amy said it awakened a competitive spirit and drove her on. Within a few years, she started entering national and international competitions.

Amy is inspired by quilters who have come before her, especially citing antique quilts as inspiration, as well as contemporary quilters today. Historically, as women became more comfortable sharing their art outside the home, they entered their quilts into craft shows and fairs, winning ribbons and recognition for their work. Some quilters today produce quilts specifically for these friendly competitions, influencing each other with their work.

“I get inspired a lot by other people’s work,” Amy said. “Lately, I’ve been trying to look more at my personal culture and heritage and trying to draw more from that.”

Identifying with women going back generations, quilting also allows Amy to connect with a traditional women’s art, craft and industry; it’s an avenue and entry point into the everyday lives of the women who have come before, many of whom were able to build careers from their art.

“It’s important not just to my identity as an Appalachian artist, but also to my identity as a woman to share all this with millions of women from around the world,” she said. “I see it as an Appalachian heritage, but more than that, I think it’s a heritage of women’s work. I automatically have something important in common with these cool women.”

With some quilters producing miniature, art or improv quilts, quilting may look a little different today than in decades past, with different, and sometimes unusual, materials — but, its fundamentals and principles have not changed. Quilting is a legacy of women’s work that is becoming more accessible and experiencing a resurgence through contemporary Appalachian quilters like Meghan, Griffin and Amy, creatives who are determined to carry on the tradition while making it their own.